Plenty of artists say they’re thankful when their music finds an audience, but Jaime Wyatt has more reasons than most to be appreciative of the warm reception for her new album, Felony Blues.
“When I got out of jail, I was so, so grateful to be able to choose the food I eat,” Wyatt tells Paste. “I was resigned to probably not doing music in any serious way back then.”
Back then was eight years ago, when Wyatt spent eight months in a county jail near Los Angeles for robbing her drug dealer, and another eight months in a residential treatment facility as part of a plea deal that included three years probation. “It was a really great education, but I still didn’t get to choose what I wanted to do,” she says of her time in county. “So thinking about making music, it wasn’t even in my wheelhouse. Not professionally, anyway.”
Wyatt, 31, was making music professionally by the time she was 17, when she signed her first recording contract. A self-titled EP of Sheryl Crow-esque pop-rock songs followed, produced by Seattle-area alt-rocker Pete Droge. But eventually, Wyatt’s record deal fell apart, and so did a second deal. Drugs helped numb the sting of rejection, and they also seemed glamorous to an impressionable teen feeling her way through the music industry.
“You’re like, ‘Hey, rock star—this is what rock stars do,’” Wyatt says. “It’s not a super kind business. You’re putting your heart out there as an artist, and people are like, yay or nay. And as a young woman, too, they’re not just looking at your art, they’re looking at your ass. That probably made me a little jaded.”
Jail shocked her out of a downward spiral and, eventually, provided fodder for Felony Blues. It’s a collection of six original tunes, and a Merle Haggard cover, with all the right country touches: trebly lead guitar licks and lonesome pedal steel over vintage-style C&W beats and Wyatt’s spellbinding voice, a rough-edged and emotionally expressive vehicle built for heartache.
“She’s got this gorgeous, smoky, really powerful voice,” says fellow singer Matthew Szlachetka, who has known Wyatt for years and has co-written songs with her, including the sorrowful “Giving Back the Best of Me” on Felony Blues. “She’s not trying to be somebody else, which I think is really admirable.”
That’s true of her songwriting, too. Wyatt deals with incarceration on songs like “Wasco,” about an inmate romance conducted by letter; and “Stone Hotel,” a pulsing number with a wry streak that she started writing in jail and finished when she got out, after reading the transcript of her own court case. There’s an immediacy to the songs that sometimes feels as though she wrote them all in the moment, which is a testament to Wyatt’s skill as a writer.
“It took a few years to even write something I felt like was the right sentiment,” she says. “For me, it has to be cheeky. You can’t just be sad. I prefer it to also be kind of a fuck-you to whoever did this, which is me and ‘the Man.’ We both had a part.”
She’s as forthright about her role as she is critical of ‘the Man’s.’ “I think the judicial system is kind of fucked, for lack of a better adjective,” she says. “It’s not about rehabilitating. It’s about how do we make you feel really shitty? It’s not empowering, and I think that’s probably what I felt for a long time, was very ashamed. I felt bad for putting my family through so much, and costing them so much money.”
Wyatt grew up in Washington state, absorbing the songs she heard around the house from her musician parents: Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and the Rolling Stones from her Dad, along with Hank Williams, the Pretenders and a healthy sampling of English punk from her Mom. “I started writing songs as a little kid, because that’s what my parents did,” she says.
She heard plenty of country music as a teen working at a horse barn near her house in the late 1990s, but it wasn’t until after her own stint in jail that she dug into the songs of Haggard, David Allan Coe and other outlaw-country musicians whose difficulties with the law turned up in their music. Haggard, in particular, has been an inspiration. “He was always writing about the downtrodden, or migrant farmworkers, or messing up as a kid and getting incarcerated and being a branded man with a criminal record,” Wyatt says. “He wrote about it pretty eloquently.”
After what Szlachetka diplomatically calls her “sabbatical,” Wyatt played in a few bands and made a record with one of them, American Bloomers, as she eased back into music and rebuilt her confidence as a writer and performer.
“When I was there, I had a lot of ideas,” she says of her time in jail. “I started writing a book, I wrote poetry that would hopefully become songs, but then I think honestly, getting out and being faced with all the wreckage sort of put that on hold.”
With the wreckage now mostly cleared away, and a renewed focus on building a career in music, Wyatt is doing her best to shed the baggage of her past without forgetting the lessons she has learned.
“It takes years to just find yourself. The things I’ve been through are part of that process, right?” she says. “Everyone has a story, a pathway how we got to where we’re standing.”
Wyatt’s path took a circuitous route, through addiction, the court system and the old stone hotel, but where she’s standing now—onstage, with a new record and a setlist full of compelling songs she wrote—is a pretty good place to be.